Gao Hong: Memories and Journeys of a Pipa Composer

As innova Recordings celebrates its 40th anniversary, the in-house label of American Composers Forum will be sharing its history and showcasing artists like Gao Hong who have been featured on the label over the years.

Before she started composing, Chinese pipa virtuoso Gao Hong had been a performer for more than 20 years. A torchbearer of the Pudong style of pipa playing, she combines a tradition she inherited from master Lin Shicheng with a multicultural approach to music making, collaborating with artists across cultures and genres.  

Whether she’s improvising on an Indian raga, a Muqam melody, or a Hawaiian guitar lick, Gao Hong first learns the idioms and progressions of each genre before contributing her “pipa identity,” she recently told me over Zoom. “I always take from [my collaborators] first, to learn what I don’t have and implement it to my pipa technique, adding Chinese elements for [the performance] to become new.”   

On her path to becoming a composer, Gao Hong established a long relationship with American Composers Forum (ACF), which has provided multiple forms of career support. Her earliest composition, Flying Dragon, for solo pipa (1997), planted the seeds for a dual career as a composer and performer. The piece is a structured meditation, with a rich tremolo and a climactic outpouring on the highest frets, expressing memories of leaving her parents in her native Luoyang when she was only 12 to become a professional musician. 

Spurred by an ACF JFund award (now ACF|create) in 1997, Gao Hong was planning on expanding Flying Dragon into a trio for pipa, flute, and harp, but when the flutist moved to Hong Kong the project became the Flying Dragon Concerto, premiered in 2005 by the Minneapolis Pops Orchestra. The original solo version and a concerto reduction for pipa and piano are featured on Gao Hong’s first two releases on ACF’s innova Recordings: Flying Dragon, and Quiet Forest, Flowing Stream.     

Gao Hong performs her work Guangxi Impression with the Minnesota Orchestra for their 2022 Lunar New Year celebration--Photo by Courtney Perry

Gao Hong performs her work Guangxi Impression with the Minnesota Orchestra for their 2022 Lunar New Year celebration–Photo by Courtney Perry

“That was like a stepping stone for me. It helped my confidence,” Gao Hong says. The project made her realize she could compose not only for the pipa, but also for orchestra and choir, which led to commissions from the Minnesota Orchestra, Minnesota Sinfonia, Kenwood Symphony Orchestra, and Civic Orchestra of Minneapolis. Additional support from ACF — an Encore grant and three Subito awards — allowed her to perform in China and Europe. 

Describing her four innova releases, Gao Hong traces a natural progression from the standout solo features of Flying Dragon (2003), to the cross-cultural explorations of Quiet Forest, Flowing Stream (2010), to the experimentations with slack-key guitar and banjo of Pipa Potluck (2015), to the free improvisation of Life As Is (2018), featuring Issam Rafea on oud. She credits the label for releasing the records worldwide and securing airplay. 

It wasn’t easy to learn to play the pipa; when Gao Hong was growing up in Luoyang, her mother — a music teacher — encouraged her to pick up an instrument that was particularly demanding. After trying instruments that were more popular among other players, like the guzheng (a plucked zither) and the erhu (a spike fiddle), she settled on the pipa, a four-stringed pear-shaped Chinese lute played upright. Her mother would make her practice eight hours a day to master the left-hand vibrato and right-hand plucking technique. Years after leaving her hometown for Hebei province to play in the Handan Dance and Singing Troupe, she made her way to nearby Beijing, and then to Japan for one year. She moved permanently to the U.S. in 1994, when she was 30.  

A career celebration concert on April 3, 2022, at Saint Paul’s Ordway Center for the Performing Arts showcased both Gao Hong the pipa virtuoso and Gao Hong the composer. The program included Reminiscences of My Hometown, a concerto for pipa, bassoon, and orchestra in which she casts nostalgic glances at her past life while musing on the possibilities of this unlikely coupling. The low, reedy bassoon represents memories of life in China, while the pipa represents the present. “No one before had written for pipa and bassoon,” Gao Hong told me. “If there’s something nobody’s done, I want to try it.” 

Gao Hong celebrates her 50th year of being a performer at the Ordway on April 3, 2022--Photo courtesy of the artist

Gao Hong celebrates her 50th year of being a performer at the Ordway on April 3, 2022–Photo courtesy of the artist

Her signature composition to date is the overture Celebration. The first version of the piece appears on the Quiet Forest album, followed by an arrangement for orchestra without soloist, and most recently reconceived as a concerto for pipa with mixed Chinese and Western orchestra, premiered at the concert. In the new version, the middle section combines the dizi (flute), yangqin (hammered dulcimer), guzheng, and erhu with Western flute, cello, and oboe. 

Although Gao Hong blends different musical traditions as a performer, she initially had misgivings — being a Chinese-born musician — about composing in the concert overture genre, a staple of Western music. But Celebration, a cross-cultural festivity for the Covid-19 vaccine, has been performed five times in less than a year. A performance by the Maryland Symphony Orchestra is scheduled for October.  

The Ordway Center concert also celebrated the 100th anniversary of Lin Shicheng’s birth (1922 – 2005). Gao Hong first met the sixth-generation Pudong-style master when she was 18. “I’d heard his name but never dreamed of becoming his student,” she says. The Pudong tradition is only passed down from master to master, Gao Hong told me. The scores only show the main part of the piece; the magic happens in the left-hand vibrato. “It’s a very storytelling instrument,” she says. Despite its wispy, twangy sound, the pipa can imitate sounds of geese, flowing water, Chinese percussion, and even laughter.

Gao Hong initially had an hourlong session with Shicheng, the only Pudong-style pipa player of his generation. Impressed with her skills, he picked her as a model student for his pipa master classes. When she was 22, he registered her to audition at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, where only one or two pipa players are admitted each year. Gao Hong studied there with Shicheng from 1986 to 1990. Eventually he became a sort of father figure to her; she was his only student, other than his own son, to record and go on tour with him.  

Gao Hong with pipa master Lin Shicheng (photo courtesy of the artist)

Gao Hong with pipa master Lin Shicheng (photo courtesy of the artist)

Gao Hong is now a teacher herself, having joined the faculty of Carlton College in 2001. Besides the pipa, she teaches the zhongruan, guqin, guzheng (all plucked string instruments), and the erhu — some of the instruments which, as a little girl of 7 in faraway Luoyang, her mother once had her try. 

She also hopes to foster the growth of promising musicians as a board member at ACF, where she works to promote diversity and equitable representation. “In the beginning of my career in the U.S., grant panelists didn’t know much about the style I played,” she says. “When I was asked to serve on a committee for artists’ support, I encouraged my colleagues to select a diverse panel of artists who were knowledgeable about a wide variety of music, rather than just classical.

“What I try to do is open opportunities for composing, not just for classical and chamber, but also for free improvisation and cross-cultural, global music collaboration,” she adds. “That’s my approach — opening more diversity in the community — so students can understand different cultures through music and composers can write new music in different styles or for instruments from disparate world cultures and traditions.” 


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